There are a variety of industrial sized compressors, vents, drain pipes, as well as other indelicate, rusted over mechanical artifices you would never want to know existed, nor would you need to, that sit clustered behind our nine-story building where eight or so lower Manhattan high rises of varying rectangular heights and widths butt up against each other to form some sort of forgotten crevice in the earth. A twenty-by-ten-yard rectangular space, at the bottom of which, in and amongst the apparatuses, someone has attempted to create an outdoor seating experience that I have never once seen anyone sitting at because why would someone do that to themselves.
These apparatuses are what keep the tenants of these buildings, both office and residential, coop and condo, from being asphyxiated from the chemicals and waste we create with our dryers and stove tops and cigars, our furnaces and A/Cs—some of which dangle perilously out grime-caked back windows that no one ever looks out of except for a few dead plants. Large ducts run up the sides of the buildings, sending the brown exhaust from restaurants, dry cleaners, and other ground floor establishments billowing into the sky. Drains stacked ten pipes deep pour dirty water down from leaking rooftop water tanks. Thick cable wires dangle down from nowhere, plugging into nothing.
On one of the buildings, a weed has sprouted up the dirty white brick facade, it’s brown and yellow tentacles swirling in and around the windows and pipes and jutting surfaces and sills like a specter.
I have stared into this crevice for the past thirty-one days. It is the view out our east facing window under which we have set up my makeshift work desk in the back corner of our loft which also serves as our bedroom. To the right of my desk are two, large south facing windows, a running leap from those of the commercial office space in the building behind ours. Next, beside our bed, are solid double doors that lead out to our building’s fire escape from which, five flights down, you’ll find yourself trapped in a nine-by-five-foot walled-in space with no egress.
Between the hours of ten-thirty and eleven a.m., if the sun is out, it streams through our east facing window and onto my desk with a blinding ferocity. From there, it spills onto a stretch of hardwood behind me and on which I can often be found sprawled out as if I’d just washed up on shore, soaking it in until it is gone fifteen minutes later.
The compressors rumble on and off at different points of the day and into the evening and then throughout the night, one of them sounds like a hovering helicopter. For many nights, in fact, I thought this was what it was, a natural assumption in this city that never sleeps and in which terror haunts. I don’t know which compressor it is, where the noise is even coming from; what I know is that it has gotten inside me. At night, I turn on and off when it does.
I stare past my laptop at the rain that has settled into a swirling wind. The torn tarp over one of the larger fans is flapping wildly. The cables wires slap back and forth. A pigeon dives down from above. I do not see it dive back up again. A blue patch of sky has opened above the crevice, spreading a rare dappled light down the black iron fire escape that scales down the twelve-story brick building across the crevice from me. But just as quickly a yawning grey cloud moves in, engulfing the blue. Eating it alive. Until we are in the mouth, where it is dark and grim. And then it spits us out and it is blue again. Dappled. All morning like this.
“What’s wrong?” he yells from the front of our loft, hearing my scream. Our loft is a large rectangle of mostly open space but for a few walls that don’t reach the ceiling. He works at our dining table that we have pushed up against our loft’s front windows, the furthest possible distance from me so that, and only if I play music at a certain decibel, I can almost not hear his eight hours’ worth of Zoom calls.
“I’m fine,” I yell back. “A bird landed with a bang on my sill.”
“What?” he yells.
“A bird,” I yell. “It scared me, that’s all.”
He yells, “What kind of bird?”
The bird, who is still there, thrusts its beak to the side so that its beady amber eye can get a square look at me. “What do you mean what kind of bird there is only one kind of bird back here!”
“There was that blue bird,” he yells. “Then there was that hawk that one time remember?”
I sigh, remembering the hawk. One afternoon, when this desk was not here, what seems like a thousand years ago, my husband had gone to the east window and spotted the hawk, sitting regal and unmoving on the tenth floor of that black-iron fire escape, the one that also serves as a launching pad for the twenty or so pigeons that nest in an adjacent duct and that were, in this moment of the hawk, at once absent. We quickly concluded that it was the hawk that had been sighted living in the trees at Madison Square Park and that we had seen there on one occasion. A beautiful, gorgeous bird that must have taken a wrong turn and found itself down here with the rest of us poor beasts. My heart began its own fluttering. The hawk’s only possible escape route would be a direct flight upwards, or to take an elevator, of which of course there were none. “Don’t worry. He knows what he’s doing,” my husband assured me. Then, as if the hawk had heard us, he launched into a slow-motion flight off the ledge, swooping down to where we couldn’t see him, and then one breathless moment later swooping back up and into that tiny crevice between our south facing windows and the office building, landing on our own fire escape. One floor above us, my husband confirmed, unlatching the double doors and poking his head out to confirm its location. Then he poked his head back in and we held eyes. This must be good luck, I told him, and he agreed that surely it must be. The stories we tell ourselves. After the excitement had died down we went back to what we were doing and never saw the hawk again.
“Pigeon,” I call back now in latent answer to his question about which kind of bird. It’s still there on the sill, five feet from me, on the other side of my window. I force myself to look at it—to acknowledge its existence. Flecks of violet sift through its black satin coat, beads of turquoise adorn its ruffled neck. I suppose it’s not entirely ugly. I close my laptop. Rub my eyes—all this preposterous amount of screen time. When he takes flight again, some five minutes later, I cry out but this time my husband doesn’t say anything. I startle easily. Even if I know he is coming up behind me (I have trained him to warn me) it is not unusual for me to still shriek when he arrives.
I swivel my chair to face the south windows. In the past two decades, the tenant of that office space has turned over a variety times, attorneys mostly, the kind of gruff and worn dress shirt wearing guys that suck money from co-ops and other small businesses that need guidance through the inexplicable number of city ordinances with which they/we are required to comply, like Local Law 11 for instance, the tax abatement law. But last year, suddenly, young white hipsters with beards moved in, a flying hacky sack, flat screens, Aeron chairs, and one standing desk. Let me guess. The guys who are supposed to be climate conscious, and yet they refuse to turn off their lights when they leave at night. The yellow glare screams out the sides of our blackout shades. I told my husband that I wanted to make a big sign, TURN OFF YOUR FUCKING LIGHTS AT NIGHT DON’T YOU CARE ABOUT THE ENVIRONMENT. He said, “Go easy.” At one point, they had positioned a life-sized cardboard Elvis at the window, his back to me. I halted and gasped when I first saw it; at night, Elvis became a black shadowed predator. “Are they trying to torture me?” A rhetorical question, the answer was no. The fact of matter was they didn’t know I existed. Even if I’d jumped up and down naked, they would not have seen me because I am over fifty. I am beyond being seen. Which was why I had wanted to make the sign.
It was when those office lights went dark that I knew. Dark for good. A month before things got, well, you know. Then the hovering helicopter stopped hovering. And as the ground floor restaurants closed, the dry cleaners and salons, one by one, the ducts stopped spitting out foul air and our bedroom stopped smelling like pinto beans at nine a.m. The nails-on-chalkboard drilling from the renovation below us ceased. The patches of light on distant high rises that poked up beyond my view of the crevice began to turn off, as people disappeared, or fled. The pigeons grew small and there were less of them. The crevice grew quieter. Darker. There was a day when I would have prayed for nothing less. To see no one. Hear nothing. Then it grew quieter still. Only a few pigeons left now, the stalwarts. But I’m most worried about the fuck-you guy. Every night at around nine p.m., like clockwork for the past fifteen years we have heard his faint muffled screams through our back-bedroom walls. I’ve never figured out from which exact apartment his howls were coming from, every one of them, it seemed. Fuck you fuck you fuck you fuck you. Ten minutes of fuck you. And now? Just the words, a haunted echo in my mind.
“How are things going up here?” Every so often I’ll stumble, bleary-eyed, into the front of our loft, where everything feels loftier, warmer, more pressing and essential, all those calls and meetings and virtual lunches and cocktail hours. He is in the middle of one now. I walk past him to the couch that frames the front windows, those that look down onto the closest thing to civilization we city dwellers have, a STREET. I kneel on the couch and prop my elbows on the sill, press my face against the glass. Down below, what our humanity has been reduced to, man and his dog—God spelled backward, my mother, a savior of dogs, recently informed me. I watch God lift its leg at the iron-fenced bed that houses one of the half dozen stark and silent trees adorning our otherwise cement and glass street, their spring buds in a state of arrested development. I lift my gaze. The girl on the sixth floor, home from college, sits perilously at her open window reading a book. All day like that, my husband tells me. Her mother comes to the window and proceeds to do what I am doing; we don’t look at each other, but for the first time in nearly twenty years I believe we might understand each other. I follow the floors up to where the top of the Met Life Tower sticks out behind them. Eleven-forty-two, its hands read. Hours feel like months. He is still on his call.
At seven the light fades to dusk. I strain to open the thousand-pound window, eighteen inches at best, and bend over and clap. He claps absently from his position at the dining table (unless he’s in a mood, in which case he’ll stand hollering on the edge of the couch with his arms stretched out like Jesus). Each night there are more and more of them, coming out of their crevices and cubby holes, people I never knew existed, at their windows banging pieces of wood together, metal, the two middle-aged men with their horn, the young couple in the penthouse with their baby, the whistles and whoops. The bell. Tonight, as a bonus, we are accompanied by a wildly barking God. When my husband told his father, who lives in the Piedmont region of Italy, about the clap, he said, as if knowing something we didn’t, that they had clapped in Italy too, for a few days, until they’d stopped. A dead silence followed this statement, and so naturally we thought our clapping, too, would stop. But it hasn’t stopped. We are going on day twenty and the clapping is growing, not so much louder but broader, deeper, richer, circling up and down and all around us, one long endless fuck-you virus roar.